Major League Soccer’s playoff pace, timing utterly nonsensical

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The pace and rhythm of Major League Soccer’s playoff stinks. It’s broken, largely ineffective and fairly nonsensical. There’s no other way to say it.

It’s really about a larger problem with MLS priorities: League stability now largely achieved, steady growth now a pleasant reality, Major League Soccer can now lean into the business of refining its product. And nowhere is refining (“reforming” actually, in this case) more important than in year-long scheduling. The concerns are myriad, including the problematic issue of playing through FIFA fixture dates, TV time slots that don’t make a lot of sense, the loss of opportunity in a lack of simultaneous final-day kickoffs and more.

Over the last few days, we’ve seen another troublesome, pot-holed road of MLS scheduling: a playoff docket that works against the league in so many ways, in limiting ticket sales and in stripping away any chance to build meaningful post-season momentum.

Let’s start here: Major League Soccer is committed to its playoff system. Not everyone agrees it should be this way; a day never passes in MLS supporter circles without impassioned debate over whether traditional world soccer models – single table, no playoffs, plus promotion-relegation – should decide the championship. But American sports are about playoffs, and I happen to believe that’s fine.

So MLS is committed to playoffs, and fair enough. League deciders favor the playoffs so much that three years ago they added two teams to the post-season field, getting more teams involved not only in the post-season, but in the truly exciting stretch run, the dramatic playoff races that (league officials hope) create memories, adding interest and fans along the way. So, fair enough to all that.

But it makes no sense to draw a big red circle around your post-season and point toward that show cow all year – and then fail to make it a priority in overall scheduling.  The league builds and builds and builds toward the playoffs – and then “Poof!”  So much of it is over in about 10 minutes.

(MORE: Dynamo president Chris Canetti talks about low turnout)

If we isolate scheduling, it really looks like the playoffs are just something MLS sticks on the back of the regular season. As in, “All right, let’s get this over with!”

First thing that happens: Teams often get two or three days to sell the first match. That’s why Seattle had just 32,204 in attendance for its elimination game against Colorado, a contest that kicked off just two-plus days after the final regular season kick. A few days after that, Seattle was back on the field again, this time playing before 38,507. Both are great numbers in domestic soccer – but well below average for the Seattle Sounders.

Along with the final regular season match, MLS policy forced Sounders FC to ask its fans to buy tickets three times within seven days. And that’s a tough ask. Bottom line, when Seattle is having trouble selling tickets to important matches, something has gone very wrong.

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Both Seattle playoff matches at home so far fell well south of this swell attendance number; this was the final regular season match at CenturyLink.

Houston had issues selling playoff  tickets, too, no real surprise considering the Dynamo didn’t know it was in the post-season until final day – and then had seven days to sell two matches. (Yes, other sports, NBA, NHL, etc., face tight sales windows at playoff time. But as we all know, and yet sometimes conveniently forget during these conversations, MLS is not the NBA or even the NHL.)

TV becomes problematic, too, with so little time provided to sort out the particulars. MLS had major trouble ginning up network interest in last week’s elimination matches. Neither of tonight’s matches (where the league’s largest market club, New York, could be eliminated) will appear on an English-language national outlet.

Aside from ticket sales and missed opportunities to create sponsor involvement and TV interest, MLS gives itself and its clubs zero chance to build some real marketing momentum along the post-season way.

The season ends. Three or four days later, two teams are gone. A week after that, four more are out.

Think about that: Within 11 days of the final regular season whistle, 6 of 10 teams are gone! The bulk of the playoffs – remember, that big red circle the league has pointed to over an entire year – are history in just 11 days.

That is what MLS wants its playoffs to be about?

The single-game, 4th-vs.-5th elimination match is fine – but put it on the weekend after the final regular season match. (And for heaven’s sakes, stop putting one of the first MLS playoff contests on Halloween! People are out and about, not home watching sports.)

(MORE: MLS loses opportunities with no final-day simultaneous kickoffs)

Then stretch these conference semifinal series over two weekends. Give them some room to breathe. We see fantastic momentum build during playoff series runs in baseball, basketball and hockey. Those are multi-game sets, of course, and MLS is fine with its two-game, home-and-away format – but give them a chance to create some energy in the market, at least.

None of this even addresses issues of fairness or technical quality. Play, travel, play, travel … that’s hardly a recipe for great soccer.

Mostly though, MLS just doesn’t give itself a chance to exploit the meaningful post-season narratives, the memory makers that create club history and build legacy. And that’s a real shame.

It’s not that difficult: Add a couple more regular season weeknight dates – and then avoid them at all cost during the post-season.

Generally, when creating the overall schedule, MLS needs to start with a playoff schedule that makes sense, and then back into the regular season from there.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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Week 28 of the Premier League is almost here as the battle for the top four and against relegation takes center stage at a pivotal moment in the season.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush”

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the long shots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for. 


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Crystal Palace 0-2 Tottenham Hotspur – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 3-1 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) –  [STREAM

Leicester City 2-0 Stoke City – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]  

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Brighton 1-2 Swansea City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Burnley 1-1 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Bournemouth 1-1 Newcastle – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Watford 1-2 Everton – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

West Brom 1-2 Huddersfield – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Manchester United 1-3 Chelsea – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Roma winger Under is a hero for Turkey’s government

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ROME (AP) From unknown status to Roma’s savior. From future star to national hero.

In the space of 2 1/2 weeks, Turkey winger Cengiz Under has undergone quite a transformation.

That’s what five goals in four matches do for a 20-year-old footballer.

Add in Under’s pro-military salute after his two-goal performance against Benevento this month, and it’s easy to see why he’s become an emblem for the government of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The salute was seen as supporting Turkey’s offensive against a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria.

A day after the brace, Turkey Minister of Youth and Sports Osman Askin Bak tweeted “No need to explain” next to a photo of Under saluting. The tweet included emojis of a Turkish flag and clapping hands.

The reception comes in sharp contrast to what NBA player Enes Kanter has faced from his home country.

Turkish prosecutors are seeking more than four years in prison for the New York Knicks player on charges of insulting Erdogan.

Kanter cannot return to Turkey because his passport has been canceled. He is a vocal supporter of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric blamed by Turkey for last year’s failed military coup.

Likewise, former national soccer team players Hakan Sukur and Arif Erdem have been stripped of their medals by the government for criticizing Erdogan.

As for Under, Erdogan reportedly called him in July to offer good luck when he completed a 13 million euros ($16 million) transfer from Basaksehir, an Istanbul club owned by the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

But Under was not involved in any goals in his first 14 matches with Roma and was starting to be seen as a misplaced acquisition by new sporting director Monchi.

Until he scored 43 seconds into a 1-0 win over Hellas Verona at the start of the month that ended Roma’s five-match winless streak in Serie A.

Then came the brace and an assist as Benevento was beaten 5-2.

“Under has done extraordinary things and improved a lot,” Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco said. “Right now he’s a decisive player.”

In a 2-0 win at Udinese last weekend, Under scored the opener with a powerful, rising shot from beyond the area.

The fine form extended to Under’s Champions League debut against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday. Under’s opener in a 2-1 loss kept alive Roma’s hopes of advancing after the second leg at home in three weeks.

While there have been no more salutes from Under since the Benevento match, that hasn’t lessened his popularity.

“Our national pride scored his first goal in the giants’ league,” the Haberturk newspaper headlined on Thursday.

Up next for third-place Roma and Under: AC Milan on Sunday.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Premier League TV, streaming schedule

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Week 28 of the Premier League season is here and the main talking points are the battle for the top four and the ever-changing relegation situation.

MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

Remember: due to the League Cup final on Sunday, finalists Arsenal will host Manchester City on Thursday, Mar. 1 as they were also scheduled to play in the PL this weekend. That worked out smoothly.

The full TV schedule for the games this weekend are below, plus you can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com,the NBC Sports App and by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold.

Gold also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: Premier League live here ] 

You can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at for all the goals as they go in around the grounds. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App.

[ MORE: Premier League “Goal Rush” ] 

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here for the games streamed on NBCSports.com and here for the games on NBC Sports Gold.

Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
7:30 a.m. ET: Leicester City vs. Stoke City – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Liverpool vs. West Ham – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Bournemouth vs. Newcastle United – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Brighton vs. Swansea City – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Burnley vs. Southampton – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM
10 a.m. ET: West Brom vs. Huddersfield Town – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM
12:30 p.m. ET: Watford vs. Everton – NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
7 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:05 a.m. ET: Manchester United vs. Chelsea – NBCSN [STREAM

LIVE, Europa League: Arsenal v Ostersunds; huge last 32 clashes

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The UEFA Europa League takes center stage on Thursday as the second legs of the Round of 32 take place.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores

Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Lyon, Sporting Lisbon, Marseille, AC Milan, Athletic Bilbao and RB Leipzig are a few of the clubs who can breath relatively easily after big first leg wins, but with nothing to lose we could well see plenty of stunning comebacks as we’ve seen many times in this tournament over the past few years.

The long Premier League representatives left in the competition, Arsenal, have a 3-0 advantage over Swedish minnows Ostersunds in the second leg at the Emirates and although Arsene Wenegr is set to give plenty of youngsters a chance to play, he remains wary of a comeback as he prioritizes ahead of the League Cup final on Sunday against Manchester City.

In USMNT watch, Borussia Dortmund and Christian Pulisic head to Italy to play Atalanta in the second leg taking a slender 3-2 advantage with them after an incredible first leg which saw Michy Batshuayi grab another two goals to continue his heroic start to his loan spell from Chelsea.

Celtic head to Zenit with a one-goal advantage, while Lazio must overturn a first leg deficit and Napoli have plenty of work to do at Leipzig if they’re to make it through to the last 16.

One team has already made it through to the Round of 16 with CSKA Moscow edging by Red Star Belgrade 1-0 on aggregate on Wednesday.

Below is the full schedule for Thursday’s games (the first leg scores are listed after the kick off time), while you can click on the link above to follow the action live and we will have reaction and analysis from all the Europa League right here on Pro Soccer Talk.


Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32, second legs

Lokomotiv Moscow v. Nice — 11 a.m. ET (3-2)
Atletico Madrid v. Copenhagen — 1 p.m. ET (4-1)
Sporting Lisbon v. Astana — 1 p.m. ET (3-1)
RB Leipzig v. Napoli — 1 p.m. ET (3-1)
Villarreal v. Lyon — 1 p.m. ET (1-3)
Lazio v. FCSB — 1 p.m. ET (0-1)
Zenit Saint-Petersburg v. Celtic — 1 p.m. ET (0-1)
Plzen v. Partizan Belgrade — 1 p.m. ET (1-1)
Dynamo Kyiv v. AEK Athens — 1 p.m. ET (1-1)
Red Bull Salzburg v. Real Sociedad — 3:05 p.m. ET (2-2)
Atalanta v. Borussia Dortmund — 3:05 p.m. ET (2-3)
Arsenal v. Ostersund — 3:05 p.m. ET (3-0)
Milan v. Ludogorets Razgrad — 3:05 p.m. ET (3-0)
Athletic Bilbao v. Spartak Moscow — 3:05 p.m. ET (3-1)
Braga v. Marseille — 3:05 p.m. ET (0-3)